Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Lighten Your Prose with Alliterative Pleasantries

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series designed to help all communicators improve their skill using basic tips and techniques.  Today it's all about writing winsomely to captivate, and connect with, reluctant readers.

I challenge you to a scavenger hunt.  

Quick, find the seven pairs of alliterative words in this Wordlegraphic.

In case you're hesitating, let me confirm that yes, alliterative means that the words start with the same letter or sound. So now that we've cleared that up, this is an easy win.


Got 'em? Congratulations. I hope that was a fun challenge.  As an instructional designer, I know that learning needs to be enjoyable. Games are one way to accomplish that; so is entertaining writing.  And entertainment is what the literary device known as alliteration brings to the table. That, and much more...

If you're a regular reader of Remarkable Messaging, the word combos in this game might have seemed familiar to you.  That's because they're all taken from previous posts, where these same pairings were used intentionally to solidify key concepts and make ideas more memorable.

Choosing words that begin with the same letter can make your message more impactful.  It introduces a subtle, unexpected pattern that attracts notice and moves your writing beyond the everyday.
Humans respond to the lyrical texture of words.When we read or listen, we primarily are focused on discerning meaning, but we also notice and enjoy qualities such as sound similarity and symmetry. In fact, we take delight discovering those elements. We even have a fun term for them: wordplay.  Repeated sounds add entertainment value --  and by doing so, they enhance the positive emotional impact of any text. 

Alliteration in a piece of writing brings us pleasure and sparks our interest, the same way that a repeated musical theme adds life to a motion picture soundtrack, or a repeated accent color brightens an interior decorating scheme.

Just a warning, though: for best effect, use this trick sparingly.  Read on for a case in point.

What are words? They are powerful projectiles, each with its own context of connotation.  And each sails into range with a sonic repercussion, leaving an impression on the listener's ear (or the reader's retina).  The point of this post is to promote the premise that words can win the hearts of your hearers when they have similar starting sounds.  

And with that paragraph above, I hope to illustrate that too much alliteration can come across as a bit artificial and tongue-twisterish, if not Dr. Seuss-like, and may actually distract the reader instead of engaging him or her.  So if you're going to use this literary device, use it sparingly.  It's the salt and pepper, not the meat and potatoes. 

So when is the best time to use alliteration? 
  • When bland text needs spice.  If your material is desperately dense, highly abstract, or possibly even of a boring nature (dare we admit it?), inserting a few same-sound-driven phrases can perk it up -- even if it's just to help the reader stay awake and focused.  
  • When you want to give tough material a friendlier spin.  Alliteration can add a touch of breezy whimsy to a too-serious presentation.  For example, at a recent seminar I attended that dealt with a complex subject, the presenter arranged his material so that all twenty subtopics started with the same letter.  His audience soon noticed, and we were soon in anticipation mode whenever he advanced to a new slide: would he keep to the pattern?  How would he pull it off?   This added a fun element to what might have been a dull session.    
  • When you want to group or contrast concepts. My favorite place for alliteration is a list -- that is, any grouping of ideas.  Somehow, if they all can start with a similar sound, they're more interesting in relationship to each other.  
  • When you want your audience to remember the punch line.  Words that hit with a similar sound-splash make a stronger combined impression in our memories.  So if you want to keep retention potential high, try to use an alliterative phrase to articulate your main take-away. Example:  One of my prior posts states, "What works on paper, doesn't always work on people."  Because of the repeated p sound, that sentence is elegantly memorable.  If I had said, "What works in theory doesn't always apply to real-life relationships," would it have had the same effect? 
  • When you want to paint a more emotional picture.  Words with same-sounding beginnings are the cousins of words with same-sound endings, or rhymes. Both can be used as brushstrokes by the artistic author to establish mood, movement and rhythm.  Consider these lines penned by another one of my communications superheroes, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her poem Autumn Daybreak:
Tardy, and somewhat south of east,
The sun will rise at length, made known
More by the meagre light increased
Than by a disk in splendour shown...

(Aaah, Edna.  In just a few lines, you've painted us quite a misty morning there, with all those m's and s's.  Great job, sweetheart.  If there was an American Idol for under-appreciated poets of the past, you would get my vote.   Every week...)

Back to the here and now of our own less-than-poetic writing assignments.  Here's an idea for another scavenger hunt.  Go back in this blog and search a few of the earlier posts.  See where I've used alliteration to add punch to my points.  (Extra credit for finding the actual pairs shown in the graphic above.)  

Or if you prefer, start a different game of your own.  Take another pass at some of your recent communications to identify places where this little trick could have ignited some sparks.  Then, the next time you need to churn out some content, don't just create -- alliterate.  Make this a game you play with your own material, and you'll win increased retention, engagement and good will.  

I predict that people's plaudits will prompt you to pursue this predilection in perpetuity.  (Well now I'm just being silly.)

Remember, alliterate responsibly... and happy communicating!

Like this post? Have another tip about alliteration?  Leave a comment!

* You can make a Wordle graphic too.  It's free, and it's fun.  Go to their site and find out how:

I first found out about Wordles from my pal in the New York communications world, talented blogger and video producer Christopher Ming Ryan.  I highly recommend his blog for all media dabblers and creative types:

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